Defunct since the early 1970s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was an organization of more than 100,000 members, with chapters on more than 350 college campuses. Founded in 1960 as an offshoot of other organizations, SDS was originally dedicated to the causes of civil rights and social justice.
In 1962, SDS issued its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. Here, concerns such as racism, poverty, and nuclear proliferation are addressed. Participatory democracy was heralded as a key way to address these problems. Action on the part of college students was advocated, and the role of America’s universities in the process of social change was stressed. It was not until the escalation of the Vietnam War by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson that the central focus of the SDS shifted to this cause. The legacy of student strikes, occupation of campus buildings, and other demonstrations stem from this time period. This also marked a period of great growth in membership for SDS.
In April 1965, SDS organized the first national protest against the war, a 20,000-person march on Washington, D.C. SDS never had a particularly strong national organizational structure, so leadership at the individual campus level was important. At many universities, SDS began to protest ROTC involvement on campus and other forms of perceived involvement with the war on the part of universities, such as grant funded research with potential military applications. SDS protests at Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley all garnered national attention for the organization.
“Teach-ins” against the war were another favored strategy. Opposition to the draft was a rallying point across campuses. In 1968, SDS helped organize and participated in demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As a result of violent struggles with police, the facts of which continue to be controversial, the “Chicago Seven” were charged with conspiracy to riot, among them Tom Hayden, then president of SDS.
During the 1968–1969 academic year, membership in the organization continued to grow. The trial of the Chicago Seven and the accompanying protests, by a wide array of organizations and individuals, generated media coverage and more national attention. Although the Chicago Seven were acquitted, internal factions within SDS led to its decline and eventual dissolution in the following years. The radical wing of the organization became known as the Weathermen. This extremely small group of former SDS members sometimes resorted to violent means to achieve their goals. Other divisions continued to concentrate on matters such as civil rights and poverty in the developing world.
- Jacobs, R. (1997). The way the wind blew: A history of the Weather Underground. New York: Verso.
- Miller, J. (1988). Democracy is in the streets: From Port Huron to the siege of Chicago. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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